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Inside Indy’s ‘insane asylum’

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History enthusiasts, preservationists and thrill seekers will get a rare glimpse into what was referred to as Indianapolis’ “Insane Asylum.” On Sept. 26, a two-hour tour, presented by Indiana Landmarks and the Indiana Medical History Museum, will allow visitors on the 160-acre campus that housed The Indiana Hospital for the Insane, which opened in 1848 on Indianapolis’ west side and closed as Central State Hospital in 1994.

Visitors will view three of the remaining landmarks: the 1896 Old Pathology Building (home of the Indiana Medical History Museum), the 1938 Administration Building (renamed Central State Mansion) and the turn-of-the-century dining hall.

“Indiana Landmarks recently added the Indiana Medical History Museum to its most endangered list, not because the building was being demolished, but to bring awareness to the site and the redevelopment of what was once the grounds of Central State Hospital,” said Gwendolen Raley, director of Indianapolis Volunteers and Heritage Experiences at Indiana Landmarks. “We’re talking about an area that hit a major decline, and now it’s coming back to life.”

Raley said this event is one of the first tours of the site in several years and is the first tour done in conjunction with Indiana Landmarks. The Indiana Medical History Museum is planning another tour of the grounds in 2016.

In November of 1848, The Indiana Hospital for the Insane was a single brick building that housed five patients who suffered from a variety of mental illnesses, ranging from depression to schizophrenia. In 1926, the institution was renamed Central State Hospital. To keep up with demand of admitted patients, the facility began to expand, and new buildings were erected.

It’s believed many patients were subjected to verbal, mental and physical abuse during their stay at Central State. Despite the rumors of ghosts lurking on the grounds, Sarah Halter, executive director of the Indiana Medical History Museum, said the number of visitors continues to rise.

“Our monthly visitation fluctuates throughout the year, but annually we have about 6,000 visitors per year. Last year we were at 6,200, and we’re on track to beat that this year,” Halter said.

For those who expect to hear the voices of lost souls and eerie sounds, Raley wants to make clear, this isn’t a ghost tour.

“I get questions a lot asking if the site is haunted, but we never take (a side) one way or the other,” she said. “We let people decide for themselves.”

A major focus of the tour, led by Indiana Landmarks staff and volunteers, is historic preservation. The 120-year-old Pathology Building that houses the Indiana Medical History Museum has undergone minor updates, but most of the original building is present. Halter said most of the building’s electrical system dates back to the early 1930s and due to a minute budget and “patch” work over the years, significant damage has occurred.

“Damage on the roof from ice and wear has led to severe water intrusion that is also damaging the inside of the building,” Halter said.

A capital campaign has been established to repair the building’s infrastructure and to ensure its long-term future. The museum hopes to use the funding for roofing, windows, skylights and doors, among other items.

“Indiana Landmarks has acknowledged not only the significance of the building and its history, but also the dire need to save it, by putting it on this year’s 10 Most Endangered List,” Halter said. “We hope this event will help us raise awareness about the incredible history of the Old Pathology Building and the entire hospital, and the need to protect it now and in the future.”

Tickets for “Seeking Asylum: Preservation at Central State,” priced at $20, must be purchased in advance for a specific time slot.

For more information, visit Asylumtour15.eventbrite.com or contact Indiana Landmarks at (317) 639-4534.

To learn more about the Indiana Medical History Museum or to make a donation, visit Imhm.org/capital_campaign.

To learn more about Indiana Landmarks, visit Indianalandmarks.org.

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